Insights and Discoveries

Pocket Dialing and Voicemail

By David Smith

Pocket dialing occurs when a mobile phone’s touch pad is pressed by something in a person’s pocket or purse, or, if the person happens to sit down a certain way, a part of their anatomy.  If the pressed key or screen surface area is programmed to dial or redial a telephone number, a call occurs.  This call often goes undetected by the phone’s owner.  Some phones are more prone to this phenomenon than others. 

Accidental Voicemail is often the result of a pocket dialing incident reaching voicemail without the caller’s knowledge or the caller’s failing to disconnect the call after leaving a recorded message.


Sometimes these calls have minor consequences; for example, the dialed parties answer their phones and hear “something” that, perhaps, they can’t quite make out.  Putting that together with the number that appeared on their phone when it rang, they may correctly conclude that they were accidentally dialed.  Naturally, the appropriate action to take is to disconnect before you eavesdrop on the person or hear something potentially embarrassing.

Then there are times that the accidentally dialed number is not heard when it rings — when it goes to what we all take for granted in our wired world, the silent sentry known as our voicemail.  These instances can result in another call, to a Forensic Audio Examiner.

As a Forensic Audio Examiner, I receive a variety of requests for my services.  I have noticed an increasing number of cases involving voicemails containing recordings of unusual calls.  These cases tend to fall into two categories.  

The first is when the phone is unintentionally “told” to dial a number, often the last number dialed, by a random event such as an accidental key press or a smartphone dialing screen’s being activated.  If the person answers, they don’t hear anyone saying, “Hello.”  If the calling phone is in a pocket or purse, they are treated to rustling noises and perhaps a muffled conversation.  If the calling phone is moved out into the open, and its owner doesn’t detect that a call is in progress, the called party may hear more clearly.  But the possibility exists that the calling party will move farther away from the phone and perhaps toward the competition from other audio, such as voices or television.

The second category is when the calling party did not reach the called party directly and decides to leave a voicemail.  While not strictly following the definition of “pocket dialing,” this “accidental voicemail” is close enough to include in this article.  Unbeknownst to the calling party, they did not disconnect or properly press the “End” key or “End Call” area on their touch screen.  This means that the called party’s voicemail is still recording everything going on around the caller.  Voicemail lengths vary, depending on the mobile phone service provider.  Some companies are generous in the amount of storage time they offer for voicemail messages.

In either scenario, or their many variations, my client usually explains that they can hear someone—often someone they know—talking.  The problem is that they can’t quite make out what is being said.  The question to me is, “Can you help?”  Fortunately, in every case I have taken, I have been able to help.



These following cases are about some of the people who have been the recipients of these unintentional calls and/or voicemails.


Business as Usual… or Not

In one case, a successful business was about to merge with a larger company.  One of the partners of the smaller firm dialed a fellow partner to discuss their pending decisions regarding whether they would each stay personally involved in the day-to-day business, work as consultants to the new enterprise, or retire.  My client told me that the call went well and that, when it ended, they had agreed that they were on the same page.  About an hour later, my client’s phone rang but he was in the middle of another activity and let the call go to voicemail.  Apparently, after the earlier call between the two parties, the calling partner had gone for a walk with a friend.  It was at the beginning of this stroll that my client’s phone had been dialed again.  A five-minute voicemail resulted.

My client said that only one section of the call was of interest, the area where his business partner was talking to the person with whom she was walking and to whom she was describing a vastly different post-merger future role for herself than she had explained to my client.  My client said that this possible deception would have a profound effect on his future.  He asked if I could increase the calls intelligibility to help him determine what was being said.

As with almost all voicemail calls, intelligibility improvement is required.  In this instance, the rustling clothing and walking through underbrush sounds were challenging, but not impossible, to remove.  I presented my findings.  After receiving the more intelligible audio, he told me that he had mistakenly interpreted what he heard on the original recording and that all was well.


Working Late or Playing Late

Another case involved a woman whose husband called her from work one morning to say that he would be working late.  She told him that she wouldn’t expect him at his regular time and that she would see him when he came home.

Later that evening, her husband inadvertently dialed her phone hours after he would normally have been home.  With the ringing not heard, it went straight to voicemail.  When she finally listened to the voicemail, she didn’t like what she heard.

When she called my Audio Lab, she told me that she had confronted her husband after he had arrived home later that same evening.  He said that he had only called her that morning.  She also said that she had been listening to the recording for a couple of weeks before she called me.  She said that there were other voices on the recording; however, she saw her husband’s phone number displayed and she knew her husband’s voice, so she knew that he was talking.  He was speaking with another woman whose voice was unfamiliar.  It was an extremely difficult recording to recover since the unintentional call was made from, what could have been, a noisy restaurant.  I improved the clarity where necessary in the voice ranges of the two principal speakers.  When she received the improved version, she said that she could hear everything that she had heard on the original voicemail, but that it was much clearer.  (In two weeks of nearly non-stop listening, she was quite confident with what she thought she had heard.)  Although unhappy that the more intelligible recording confirmed the conversation and her suspicions, she added that calling me earlier would have saved her weeks of struggling to make out the conversation as well as weeks of worry.


Custody Battle on the Horizon?

The final case involved a single mother who said that she enjoyed a good relationship with her former in-laws, despite the dissolution of her marriage to their son.  They were excellent grandparents and had a good relationship with her children.

She said that at the end of one of the grandparent’s friendly voicemails regarding an upcoming visit with their grandchildren, she heard the telephone handset touch the telephone cradle, but the voicemail continued recording the couple’s conversation.  She told me that since the receiver didn’t disconnect the call, she heard what she thought was a discussion between the grandparents speaking critically about her as a mother and the future of her retaining custody of her children.

The problem was that she couldn’t determine exactly what was being said since they had walked some distance away from the still-active home telephone.  Could this be how they really felt about her?  The only way to know for certain was to improve the audio’s intelligibility.  After retrieving the voicemail message from her system, I improved the voices’ intelligibility and sent her a copy of the more easily understood conversation.

She was relieved to hear that, while her imagination had run wild and had negatively filled in a lot of the blanks, the actual conversation was the opposite of what she thought she had heard.  Her former in-laws were actually discussing how thankful they were that she was such a good mother.

Although pocket dialing is often annoying and sometimes embarrassing, some instances are more serious, such as when pre-programmed emergency numbers like 911 are dialed.  Increasingly, more local 911 Centers are able to accurately determine where to send assistance from a mobile phone’s geo-location information.  Because the caller is not aware of the call and isn’t providing information to the 911 operator, emergency services are often dispatched to ensure that the caller is not in real trouble.  Many new mobile phones include safeguards to prevent accidental dialing, and there are even apps to help prevent pocket dialing.  There are, however, still plenty of phones in use that can cause unintended problems for their owners. Pocket dialing and accidental voicemail are just two areas where the assistance of a Forensic Audio Examiner could be vital.

©2015 David Smith

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